Excerpt: Pops: Fatherhood in Pieces by Michael Chabon

This Father’s Day, we savour this poignant, funny and perceptive collection of essays exploring the state of being both a father and son

These days, Michael Chabon is well established as one of America’s leading novelists. But, as he explains in the introduction to Pops, back when he was starting out, he received some considered advice from a literary hero of his own about how to have a successful writing career. “Don’t have children,” the great man told him. “That’s it. Do not. You can write great books. Or you can have kids. It’s up to you.”

Luckily for both Chabon and us, it was advice he chose to ignore, going on to be a father of four (and to write great books anyway). Luckily for Chabon—because he clearly has no regrets about his decision: “Once they’re written, my books, unlike my children, hold no wonder for me; no mystery resides in them.” Luckily for us—because in the month of Father’s Day, we now have this lovely collection of essays exploring fatherhood from the twin perspectives of being a dad and being a son.

The essays on his children are unfailingly tender, without ever being soppy. They’re also full of that sense of wonder and mystery he mentions in the introduction—not least when he writes with some significant bafflement about his youngest son’s taste for wildly dandyish clothes. (“What made Abe different was the degree of comfort he felt with being different.”)

Even so, perhaps the best essay of all is the one about his own father, a doctor who, to his awed young son, seemed to know everything—from the genealogies of English kings to every classic movie ever made. A few decades later, though, with Chabon in his fifties, their relationship has inevitably become less central to his life…

 

Pops: Fatherhood in Pieces

"At this point, to be honest, being my father’s son is more like a hobby, one of a number of pastimes acquired early, pursued with intensity, laid aside, and only intermittently resumed: origami, cartooning, model-building, being a son. I think of my father at least once every day, try (but fail) to call him once a week, and, as required, afford regular access to his grandchildren. Beyond that, the contours of the job turn vague.

And yet it’s in my capacity as his son that I board a flight to Portland, Oregon, hoping he’s still alive when I get there. The day before yesterday my father fell so ill, so suddenly, that he consented— for the first time that anyone can remember—to being hospitalised. He’s home again for now, but I have been given reason to believe that if I want to see him again—and, of course, at the moment, seeing him is all I want to do—I’d better not hesitate. When the plane lands, I take my phone out of airplane mode with a sense of dread, but there’s no fatal text message. I rush from the airport to the apartment.

"I wonder how long it has been since the last time we did this, just lie around in the middle of the afternoon watching a great movie together"

When I called to say that I would be flying up to see him, my father made the expected but unexpectedly feeble attempt to dismiss my urgency as baseless and my visit as gratuitous, but as soon as I walk into the bedroom, I can tell he is happy to have me there. Although he seems to be out of danger for the time being, he freely acknowledges that he just came very near to death. I lie down beside him on my stepmother’s side of the king-size bed. The flat-screen television on the opposite wall happens to be showing a film I first saw with my father, when I was 11 or 12: Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Every few minutes my father is racked by spasms of gnarly-sounding coughing that have left his voice a ragged whisper; if he taxes it beyond a sentence or two, whatever he says dissolves into a fit of hacking and gasping for breath. It seems best, therefore, to avoid conversation entirely.

But after a while I find myself thinking about the conversation we aren’t having. I start having it with him in my head…

I wonder how long it has been since the last time we did this, just lie around in the middle of the afternoon watching a great movie together. I decide that the answer is probably something in the neighbourhood of 40 years.

And then, equally unbidden, comes the thought: This is how it will be when he is gone. I will be lying on a bed somewhere, watching some other film that became beloved to me through my father’s own loving intervention, and even though he won’t be there anymore, I will still be watching it with him. I will hear his voice then the way I am hearing it now, in my head."